From his home workshop/film studio in SeaTac, famously reclusive and idiosyncratic Pacific Northwest animation artist Bruce Bickford for three decades produced undeniably visionary art films. Although self-taught, the enigmatic and esteemed animation pioneer -- once deemed "the world's greatest animator" -- earned a worldwide following of animation aficionados enthralled by his ingenious, disturbing, lysergic, phantasmagorical, often violent, eye-popping, and mind-bogglingly unique work. Acquiring a film camera as a teenager, Bickford began experimenting with modeling clay and a primitive stop-motion animation technique (what is called "clay animation") -- a labor-intensive process that Bickford is rightly considered both a pioneer and master of. He gained his initial cult-status fame by animating various 1970s Frank Zappa films (for which Bickford is considered a father of the subsequent music-video revolution), but his most highly regarded piece is the award-winning 1988 feature Prometheus' Garden. Bickford's work has also been highlighted in Zappa's 1990 The Amazing Mr. Bickford film; exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum; and featured in the 1994 history book Clay Animation: American Highlights 1908 to the Present, the 1995 film The Clay Spirit, and two bio-documentary films, 2004's award-winning Monster Road and 2008's Luck of a Foghorn.
Bruce Bickford was born in Seattle on February 11, 1947, one of George and Audrey Bickford's four sons. Their home was a house on a woodsy hillside, located in a then-unincorporated King County area (later incorporated into the newish town of SeaTac), which provided an expansive eastward view of the Green River Valley. Bickford was a sensitive, artistic child who would eventually create savant-level art that often explored imaginary and fantastic realms where surreal beasts and scary critters engage in horrifically monstrous activities. It is instructive that as a lad he developed a keen fascination with a winding road in nearby Tukwila that bears the wonderfully evocative name "Monster Road" (for an early local farmer and moonshiner, Charles Monster [1884-1962]).
As a child blessed with an extremely fertile imagination and an early love of movies, Bickford began directing films in his mind -- action-packed shorts that he called "imaginings." He later cited such movies as King Kong (1933), Peter Pan (1953), The Vikings (1958), The Wild Bunch (1969), and the films of Ray Harryhausen (b. 1920) as some of his major influences. By the age of 12 or 13, Bickford once told The Seattle Times:
"I got into clay real heavily. I remember making a spaceship with fifty people sitting in it in rows. Then I would simulate a crash. I'd hurl it to the ground as hard as I could and pry it open to see what happened to the people inside. ... [Then] when I got to be about fourteen, I realized I was spending an awful lot of time imagining these things [swashbuckling episodes involving Captain Hook or battles with barbarians and terrifying beasts, and] I wondered if anything would ever come of it" (Boss).
The first sign that Bickford would find a way to explore his fascination with such dark ideas in an artistically productive way came with the acquisition of his first 8-mm movie camera at age 17 in the summer of 1964. Bickford quickly realized that by applying a primitive stop-motion animation technique -- a technical process known as clay animation -- he could make his clay models do anything he could dream up. The Seattle Times later described his method: "Bickford creates the illusion of life by moving or reshaping the clay figures in tiny increments and recording it a frame at a time on movie film" (Boss). The biggest limitation this technique presents is seemingly that of time: the whole clay animation process is so labor-intensive that, for example, in one five-year period of his career Bickford's total creative output resulted in a mere 28 minutes of completed animation. Bickford's improved production techniques, thankfully, have sped up that output level over the years, but it is his obsessive dedication to detail that continues to make Bickford's work so visually stunning.
Start of the Quest
Bickford attended Angle Lake Elementary School and Chinook Middle School and then spent his sophomore year at Mount Rainier High School before transferring to the brand-new Tyee High School, from which he graduated in 1965. The following year he joined the U.S. Marines. His three-year hitch included serving one year in Vietnam. In 1969 Bickford resumed his artistic activities, this time with a 16-mm camera and an interest in developing new hot-wax (on glass) animation techniques -- along with refining his own idiosyncratic line-animation, cell-animation, and paper-cut-out-animation techniques.
Bickford's film Tree represented what he has described as his "first attempts at morphing and free-form psychedelic movement" (Sundell). The hallucinatory style of animation that Bickford created won him his first-ever award when a self-produced, four-minute film (Last Battle on Flat Earth) took the Northwest Artists Award at the 1971 Bellevue Arts Festival. Years later a critic described the "plot" as showing "a horde of black men [who] take up machetes against machine-gun-toting whites. Bullets fly in slow motion, penetrating torsos and generating ribbons of blood. The aroused blacks start to chop away at arms and heads" (Wickstrom). Another cinephile recently enthused, "His homespun hallucinatory clayscapes are staggering in their scope and crayon-grade gore, but the true mark of a Bickford stop-motion odyssey is the gleeful, nightmarish, boundlessly morphing detail he contains in every sequence" (Bret).
The following year saw the completion of Bickford's Bar Room Brawl -- described as depicting "a ritual with a magical knife that leads to a brawl in a strange beer hall" (Wickstrom) -- and Red Wax Lava. He produced Start of the Quest in 1973 and Little Boy in School in 1974. Bickford was impressed by the animation sequences in 200 Motels, a 1971 musical film by iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993), and he headed for Hollywood in 1973 with the goal of meeting the artists responsible. That movie's production designer, Cal Schenkel (b. 1947), introduced Bickford to Zappa, who hired him to collaborate on a few project concepts. A very productive six-and-a-half-year period commenced with Bickford working in a Santa Monica-based studio. Their first efforts together yielded 1974's A Token of His Extreme, which featured Zappa's music paired with Bickford's animation. Following that came Baby Snakes, a Zappa concert film augmented with Bickford's animation sequences, which made its world premiere on December 21, 1979, at the Victoria Theater in New York City and which won First Prize in 1981 at the First International Festival of Music Films in Paris.
Amazing Feats of Clay
In 1981 Bickford returned north to his boyhood home, where his mother, post-divorce, was still residing and where he based his film production studio from then on. Over the next few years Bickford developed an untold number of original storylines, sketched storyboards, created line-sequences, and built elaborate physical sets for scads of new projects, including the (still a work-in-progress in 2013) film Tales of the Green River. In 1983 Frank Zappa produced a television feature, The Dub Room Special, which included some of Bickford's work (as did Zappa's 1987 feature, Video from Hell). And along the way, the arts community took note of Bickford's contributions. In 1985 he won the Washington State Arts Commission's Fellowship for Media Arts, and in 1988 he won grants from the Rocky Mountain Film Center and the Washington State Arts Commission.
In that same year the filmmaker finally released his 16-mm, 28-minute, stop-motion feature, Prometheus' Garden, which he had first screened a portion of in 1983 at Seattle's Bumbershoot arts festival and again in 1984 at the Trickfilm-84 show at Seattle's Focal Point Media Center (913 E Pine Street). The film proceeded to blow the minds of critics, animation experts, and fans with its unrelenting onslaught of bewilderingly fast-paced, bizarre, morbid, yet nearly indescribable imagery -- all created by Bickford out of almost-infinitely undulating forms of clay. Utilizing clay figures and sets, cutouts, replacement series, aluminum foil, "strato-cut" slices, molten wax, and other techniques, Bickford "made people and objects appear from and disappear to the landscape. He morphed figures relentlessly and unpredictably. A character might suddenly become the landscape and the background might suddenly become the character at any moment" (Ingram, "Prometheus' Garden").
Bickford "offers us a visionary landscape," one film scholar wrote, "a hallucinogenic retreat into magical settings where figure and ground may transform into the other at any moment, enchanted settings in which modern technocrats are easy villains and nature is under siege" (Frierson, p. 168). The film's storyline, another critic noted, "is loose, to say the least, and swims with intuitive dreamy logic ... Metamorphosis is a chief motif/theme. Almost everything stretches, flows, and reforms. The camera tracks into a man's head that fluidly molds into several things before becoming a blue sea. It's one of the few instances in cinema I know where the elasticity of the mind and flowing thoughts are seemingly illustrated" (Fulton).
"The dark and magical images of this haunting film unfold," film critic Jon Beinart wrote, "in a dreamlike stream of consciousness ... Like all Bickford films, Prometheus' Garden defies description and simply must be experienced" (Beinart). Other critics joined in: the San Francisco Chronicle raved that the movie was "wildly imaginative and morbidly funny;" Animation Magazine saw it as being "surreal, absurd, and metaphorical;" and Animation World Journal described the film as portraying a "psychedelic metamorphosis" (quoted in Ingram, "Prometheus' Garden"). Promoting a 2013 showing, a film society wrote of the movie:
"Bickford can transport us back to early childhood when everything is new, when we are constantly in a state of amused awe -- when a blade of grass, a tree, a sword, an eerie smile are all great mysteries to us. Things appear and disappear; cause and effect is inexplicable; both danger and splendor are always just around the corner. All is at once beautiful and frightening" (Denver Film Society).
Prometheus' Garden went on to be named the "Best Short Subject of 1988" by Seattle Times film critic John Hartl, and was that year's Festival Winner at the Northwest Film and Video Festival in Portland, Oregon. The film "is now regarded as not just one of the greatest Claymation films ever made, but a masterpiece in its own right. Without a traditional plot or central characters, Prometheus' Garden is the bastard child of surrealism, while at the same time anticipating the highly subjective work now being celebrated within contemporary art circles today" ("Slated!"). Kit Boss of The Seattle Times nailed it with this insight: "Like Prometheus, the mythical god who took earth and water and made man, Bickford breathes life into lumps of clay."
"The Amazing Mr. Bickford"
Although Bickford and Zappa, two perfectionist artistes, had definitely experienced some creative (and other) tensions in their six-and-a-half-year business relationship, the latter did not withhold praise for his animator, crowing that Bickford was "a genius with an imagination that defies description" whose work is "state-of-the-art weirdness" (Clippings).
Indeed, Zappa released a sort of tribute film in 1990 titled The Amazing Mr. Bickford, which he produced, wrote, and directed and which "combines some of Zappa's most revered and complex orchestrations with the dark surrealist, constantly evolving and often shocking clay animation of" Bickford (Neily). Animation fans and critics heaped praise on the work: "Bickford is a genius ... his work tends to the lysergic, with images melting and transforming into one another" (Clippings).
The film "takes all the ingredients of a cinematic masterpiece -- gory racial tangles, breasts, car chases, bad trips ... Heady stuff" (Clippings) and depicts "a constantly shifting arena of conflict, dread, mysterious missions, heaving landscapes and sudden violence ... keep the children away" (Wickstrom).
Bickford's amazing work was also seen in various other projects that decade, including the 1992 "Mr. Blue Veins" music video for a Los Angeles band, Carnival Arts; the 1994 Waiting for Father Christmas live stage musical production; the MTV Latino channel's 1995 ID logo sequence; the 1998 Feats of Clay animation compilation; and the 1999 "Brozo the Clone" music video for the Northwest rock band Critters Buggin'. In 2000 Bickford's line-animation gem Boar's Head/Whore's Bed was a winner at Portland's Northwest Film and Video Festival.
The Clay Spirit
Bickford's stature as an important artist has been rising in recent times. He has been exalted as "one of the most gifted and beautifully demented animators in the history of the universe" (Sundell) and is even "considered by many to be the world's greatest animator" ("Endless Summer"). Bickford "is now being recognized by a younger generation of artists as being one of the most seminal influences on their work and far more deserving of recognition than he has previously received" ("Slated!"). Critic David Fellerath wrote:
"[His] animation is painstakingly precise, the work of a phenomenally skilled artisan. It is also the product of a distant and mysterious imagination, one that refuses to conform to the traditional demands of exposition, conflict and resolution. ... Aside from the artistic merit of his work, the awe that Bickford inspires among the cognoscenti is also due to the Herculean effort required for a single person to achieve such nuanced animation effects."
Concurring, Brett Ingram has written that "Bickford is an underground artist who has mystified animation critics and inspired generations of animators, while somehow eluding fame. He has been described as the world's only outsider artist working in the medium of animation" (Ingram, "Prometheus' Garden"). Seattle experimental filmmaker Janice Findley once praised Bickford in these terms:
"He reminds me of Hieronymus Bosch, who had a million little figures in his paintings. There's not many animators out there that can even touch him. There's some artists whose work has a really universal appeal. I think Bruce is more of a cult artist. Maybe he's a folk artist of art film" (Boss).
Bickford's edgy genius has inspired other artists, including Northwest cartoonists Matt Groening (b. 1954) and Jim Woodring (b. 1952); renowned animators, including the Bolex Brothers; and fellow filmmakers, including Steve De Jarnatt and Brett Ingram (who included Bickford in his 1995 documentary The Clay Spirit).
In 1999 Ingram began shooting new footage of the artist at work -- an effort that resulted in the independent documentary Monster Road. Released by Bright Eye Pictures in 2004, the film made its premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, where it won its first award: the Jury Prize for Best Documentary. The film went on to play at 90 other fests in a dozen different countries, including the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the Antimatter Festival of Underground Film and Video in Victoria, B.C., the Flanders International Film Festival in Belgium, and the Lausanne Underground Film Festival in Switzerland. Along the way, Monster Road garnered at least 16 more awards, including Best Documentary prizes at the Red Bank International Film Festival and the Indie Memphis Film Festival. In June 2005 it made its cable TV premiere on the Sundance Channel, and it was released on DVD the following year.
In 2008 Bickford's line animation film The Comic That Frenches Your Mind was included in the compilation DVD Cartune Xprez 2008. Also that year Bickford's Prometheus' Garden was issued on a DVD that was augmented with the inclusion of a new Ingram-produced 30-minute documentary about the artist titled Luck of a Foghorn.
Meanwhile, Bickford's growing stature saw him being presented at various events, including a film screening and filmmaker discussion at Seattle's New City Theater (1404-06 18th Avenue) in 1989; "An Evening with Bruce Bickford" at the 911 Contemporary Arts Center (117 Yale Avenue N) and at Portland's Northwest Film and Video Center in 1990; and an animation workshop at the University of Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1992. In 1997 Bickford's film Inversion Layer was completed. Then, Bickford's work -- a table-top scale model of the universe of David Lynch's 1990-1991 Twin Peaks television series (whose fictional setting was in the Pacific Northwest) -- was featured at the Seattle Art Museum's Twin Peaks Festival in 1998 and 1999 and again at the museum's Twin Peaks/David Lynch Festival Night in 2000. Bickford participated in a filmmaker discussion at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2003 and an NPR radio interview in 2004. In September 2007, Bickford enjoyed a solo exhibit ("The Amazing World of Bruce Bickford") at Seattle's Christoff Gallery (6004 12th Avenue S).
In the spring of 2010 Bickford made rare appearances at the London International Animation Festival and the International Trickfilm Festival of Animated Film in Stuttgart, Germany. He spoke and screened his decades-in-the-making Cas'l film, which includes a clay animation visual tribute to a fabled long-gone 1930's roadhouse, the Spanish Castle Ballroom, once located near Bickford's neighborhood at the northwest corner of old Highway 99 (now Pacific Highway S) and the Kent-Des Moines Road. He was also feted at the 2011 Animation Breakdown festival in Los Angeles.